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Supreme Court to hear Guam, Alaska Cases
By Court House News @ 12:11 PM :: 616 Views :: Environment, Judiciary, COVID-19

US Supreme Court Takes Up More Than a Dozen New Cases

by Jack Rodgers, Erika Williams and Andy Monserud, Court House News, January 8, 2021

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court granted 14 cases Friday night, adding an additional 12 hours of argument to its calendar.

The court did not act on some of its pending election challenges, including one sent by President Donald Trump to the justices focused on law governing mail-in ballots. Justices did however beef up their calendar with a myriad of new cases.

The U.S. and the territory of Guam will battle before the justices over the responsibility of an $160 million environmental cleanup. In 1940, the U.S. Navy created a toxic waste disposal site without any environmental safeguards. When Guam was left holding the trash bag, it sought those costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

The D.C. Circuit said, however, that Guam’s claim was prevented by a specific section within the CERCLA, which has specific time restraints for intermediaries to file their challenges. 

The court held then that section prevented Guam’s claims because of a decade-old consent decree between the countries, settling those claims under the Clean Water Act. Guam filed the lawsuit three years after that decree, so the country’s claims were prevented.

Another case that pits the city of San Antonio against Hotels.com will decide whether U.S. district courts have the ability to determine taxable costs when issuing judgments. The case involves a lawsuit by the city against Hotels.com for not paying an inordinate amount in hotel-occupancy taxes.

Two related cases over whether the government was wrong to deny federal Covid-19 relief funds to Alaska Native corporations made it onto the docket Friday.

In September, a panel for the D.C. Circuit found that Alaska Native corporations are not eligible to receive any of the $8 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding set aside for tribes under the CARES Act.

The ruling came after three separate tribes filed lawsuits contending that ANCs should not receive the aid allocated to recognized tribes because they are corporations.

The D.C. Circuit ruled that an Alaska Native corporation cannot qualify as an Indian tribe under the federal Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act unless “recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians.” 

So far, none have been recognized as such by Congress. 

The Alaska Native Village Corporation Association, which brought the underlying case against Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, says that Congress did not intend to leave Alaska Native corporations out of its language when drafting the recognition rules. 

Still, the lower circuit courts argued it did leave them out. 

“In accepting that argument, the decision below upends the long-settled legal landscape and shatters the basic infrastructure of Native life in Alaska,” wrote attorneys representing the ANCs in the case, who are with the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP. 

They urge that Native corporations are essential to the tribes they service.

In a similar petition granted on Friday by the Supreme Court, Secretary Mnuchin claims that the appellate court erred in concluding that an Alaska Native regional or village corporation does not qualify as an “Indian tribe.” 

“Congress incorporated the ISDA definition to ensure that urgent coronavirus relief funds are available to ANCs for the benefit of their Alaska Native shareholders and the communities ANCs serve,” Mnuchin’s petition reads.

Justices also agreed on Friday to hear a First Amendment case brought by a cheerleader who was kicked off her high school team for posting profanities on social media while off-campus. 

The Pennsylvania teen, referred to by the initials B.L., didn’t make the varsity cheerleading squad for the 2017-18 school year so she expressed her anger via the photo-sharing app Snapchat.

Alongside a photo of herself giving the middle finger, she wrote “Fuck school, fuck softball, fuck cheer, fuck everything.”

When her coaches took notice of the post, B.L. was promptly suspended from the junior varsity squad, sparking a lawsuit from her parents. 

A federal judge ruled in 2019 that her speech was protected by the First Amendment, and the Third Circuit affirmed that decision in June. 

The Supreme Court will need to look back at the 1969 landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which holds that public school officials “may regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” 

Further, they will determine whether that case applies to the regulation of speech conducted while off-campus. 

The high court on Friday also decided to take up a case centered around Gregory Greer, who was charged in Florida with possessing a firearm while being a convicted felon.

Greer was sentenced to 120 months in prison and later requested that the Eleventh Circuit vacate his conviction or grant him a new trial. 

Last year, the Supreme Court held in Rehaif v. United States that in order to prosecute a felon for possessing a weapon, “the government must prove not only that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm, but also that he knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm.”

Greer brought his challenge under the Rehaif decision, claiming that it “made plain that errors occurred when his indictment failed to allege, his jury was not instructed to find, and the government was not required to prove that he knew he was a felon when he possessed the firearm.”

The 11th Circuit denied his claims.

Greer contends that the 11th Circuit erred because it did not just use the evidence introduced at trial, but also considered his five prior felony convictions and his presentence investigation report. 

The Supreme Court will decide whether a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may review matters outside the trial record to determine whether an error “affected a defendant’s substantial rights or impacted the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the trial.”

In USA v. Palomar-Santiago, prosecutors are appealing the Ninth Circuit’s dismissal of charges against Refugio Palomar-Santiago, a Mexican national and lawful U.S. permanent resident who re-entered the country after being deported for driving under the influence.

The Ninth Circuit held that because Palomar-Santiago was wrongfully deported, he could not be charged with wrongfully re-entering the country. 

In its petition for certification, the government argued that the appellate court wrongly found that Palomar-Santiago was excused from proving that he had exhausted his administrative remedies and been denied judicial review. 

Another case, Sanchez v. Wolf, involves the Temporary Protected Status sometimes granted to immigrants from countries suffering humanitarian crises. 

The appellants, a married El Salvadoran couple who gained TPS status in 2001 after an earthquake in the Central American country, seek to overturn a Third Circuit finding that they are ineligible for permanent-resident status because they were not inspected and admitted at the time of their original entry.

That process typically takes place at an embassy or consulate in an immigrant’s home country, the couple argued, making the requirement “especially problematic for TPS recipients” for whom remaining in their home countries poses a safety risk. 

Attorney Jaime Aparisi wrote that the court’s interpretation of the phrase “inspected and admitted” conflicted with that used by the Sixth and Ninth Circuits and lined up with one from the 11th Circuit. The Department of Homeland Security successfully argued for a strict interpretation of the phrase in the Third Circuit case, while other courts have held that the process for receiving the status qualifies as inspection and admission. 

“Immigration’s been taking the most restrictive position they can on this issue since the ’90s,” Aparisi said in an interview. That position, he said, has forced immigrants fleeing violence in their home countries to return to those countries in order to adjust their immigration status, including through marriage or employer sponsorship. 

“I think it’s ridiculous for the government to make people who have TPS to return to countries who are under civil strife,” he added.

The justices will also review whether refineries can qualify for renewable fuel rule exemptions without having received uninterrupted, continuous hardship exemptions since 2011.  

The Renewable Fuel Standard requires transportation fuel refiners to blend increasing amounts of renewable fuels into their products each year. 

To mitigate harm that this mandate could have on small refineries, Congress allows small refineries facing “disproportionate economic hardship” to petition the Environmental Protection Agency for an exemption “at any time.” 

“The Tenth Circuit, however, interpreted this provision to add an additional requirement, namely that a small refinery may obtain an exemption only when it has received uninterrupted, continuous extensions of the exemption for every year since 2011 — an interpretation that excludes nearly all small refineries,” wrote the attorneys for four refineries that sued the Renewable Fuels Association in an underlying case.

Another case granted by justices involves whether three drug offenders who were sentenced in 2010 have “covered offenses” under the First Step Act.

Specific patent defenses also will be examined in Minerva Surgical Inc. v. Hologic, Inc. Cytyc Surgical Products, which the court also granted.

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